A new study published in the journal Psychological Science shows a correlation between college students that come from states with high income inequality and students that cheat. The researcher, Lukas Neville, is a Ph.D. candidate in organizational behavior at Queen’s School of Business in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. He said he became interested in academic dishonesty and plagiarism because of his teaching experience. Turnstyle spoke with Neville about his research.
Turnstyle: What inspired you to do this study?
Neville: I wanted to look at situational factors that contributed to cheating. My sense is that there are some incorrigible students who will always cheat and some saints who won’t cheat no matter what, but there are also a substantial number of students whose decision to cheat is shaped, at least partially, by the environment they’re in.
Turnstyle: Who did you survey in this study?
Neville: I actually didn’t talk to students directly – I let their Google searches speak for them. I took a dataset that broke down a huge pile of search traffic, and showed which states were more likely to be the origin of particular searches. So, for instance, if you look at ‘frozen car door’ as a search term, you’ll find that that search tends to originate in cold Northern states like Wisconsin and Minnesota, rather than Sun Belt states like Florida.
I was wondering if I’d see any pattern to which states were more likely to go hunting for things like “free term paper”, or search for the names of common essay term mills.
Turnstyle: Why do you think your study showed a correlation between income and cheating in college?
Neville: Actually, what I found was that it wasn’t so much about income; it wasn’t rich states versus poor states. It was about inequality in income: States that had a really big gap between the rich and the poor were more likely to be the sources of these searches than states with a smaller gap.
The reason I think income inequality correlates with cheating (as measured with these sneaky searches for essays to crib) is that income inequality tends to lower trust. Previous research has shown that a huge gulf between the rich and poor weakens social ties and make us more suspicious of each other.
Turnstyle: Why do you think more students from states with high income inequality are more likely to cheat?
Neville: I think that students from states with high income inequality tend to cheat more because there’s less trust in those places. If you’re in an environment where people act like you’re trustworthy, you tend to want to live up to that trust. And if you’re in a high-trust environment, you look around, and you think, ‘Yeah, these folks around me can be counted on not to cheat.’
But if you’re in a low-trust place, you’re more likely to think that those around you are cheating, and you don’t want to be the one sucker left working hard while everyone else is prospering by cheating. Being in a place with lower average trust in one another probably puts you at greater risk of cheating because you think everyone else is cheating, if you want to think of it that way.
And that’s exactly what I found here. The effect of inequality on cheating-related searches was due to the effect of inequality on trust: High-inequality states had less trust, and that mattered because trust kept people from searching for these terms. High inequality, lower trust, more cheating. And I found that if you controlled for cheating, that link between inequality and cheating disappears. Trust is really the key that links together economic equality and honest behaviour (and, on the other hand, economic inequality and cheating).
Turnstyle: Did the number of students who admitted to cheating in college increase over time?
Neville: My study wasn’t able to look at the rates of cheating over time. Back in 2001, Donald McCabe from Rutgers did a review with his colleagues and concluded that there had been a modest rise over thirty years in academic dishonesty. Since then, there has been a massive rise in the availability of tools – Internet searches being one – that students can use to cheat. It’s become easier to cheat since then.
Turnstyle: What surprised you from your study?
Neville: I was honestly surprised to find these results looking only at the state level. Usually, you look at dynamics of trust at the level of communities. The search-engine query data is only available at the state level, and I thought, with the huge differences within a state in trust, I’d never find anything. But even when you’re looking state-to-state, you still see these effects. I think it’s really important to start digging down and looking at how these relationships play out at the level of the college, of the classroom.
Turnstyle: Do you think your study will cause concern among professors with regards to cheating?
Neville: I hope this gives professors some hope. We don’t have a lot of power as academics and instructors over how wealth gets divided. But we do have control over the environment of trust in our colleges and classrooms. And my research shows that the reason inequality is having this effect on cheating is because it deteriorates our trust.
Professors can do a lot to foster trust in our classrooms. There’s great work on the effect that honor codes seem to have on cheating. Feeling trusted would help to explain why they work. I think we need to work to build communities in our classrooms. It’s hard to have trust in the context of a huge, impersonal, 1000-seat lecture theatre where students don’t know one another. That’s a big challenge, but making the classroom a community where students trust and feel trusted, I think that’s really important to helping mitigate some of inequality’s ugly effects.
Turnstyle: What are the next steps in this field?
Neville: I think this study is an interesting start to a conversation, but it’s not the final word. Looking at search queries, looking only at the level of the state, not being able to tease apart cause and effect, these are real challenges with this study. I think the next step needs to be to look at the dynamics at the more personal level, within classrooms, rather than within states. But that said, I hope that it captures people’s interest and imagination and gets people talking about inequality and trust in education.